Janelle Brown On Authenticity And Writing 'Pretty Things'

by Maria Guido
Originally Published: 
Maria Guido

Pretty Things author Janelle Brown talks authenticity and influencers

It’s nearly summer, and we all need a little something to get our minds off the fact that 2020 is a massive dumpster fire. Well, look no further, because we’ve found a book that will immerse you in someone else’s mess for a while.

Pretty Things is the story of Nina, a grifter looking for her last big break so she can leave that lifestyle behind. Enter heiress and social media influencer Vanessa — the perfect mark. But the perfect mark also happens to be a piece of Nina’s past… and the grift is not as simple as Nina thought it would be.

Janelle Brown answered some questions about her page-turner… and provided some useful advice for aspiring writers.

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The story was told from two different POV’s — did you have a favorite to write or find yourself connecting with one over the other?

It’s funny – I started out writing the book feeling most connected to Nina, the con artist. She’s the underdog, and therefore easy to root for; plus I had a blast with the challenge of trying to write a flawed but sympathetic grifter. But as I dove into the character of Vanessa – the emotionally unstable heiress with a boatload of family trauma – I started to really relate to her, too.

As a writer, I have to feel a connection with all my protagonists in order to make them come alive, and I really wanted the reader’s sympathies to swing from Nina to Vanessa and back again; so I let myself fall in love with them both!

On Crime Reads you wrote that you unfollowed all the influencers you’d followed for your research of this book. Why?

I was mostly following fashion and lifestyle influencers for my research, and this began to feel like it was doing a number on my self-esteem: Staring at expertly processed photos of beautiful people living a highly-curated, expensive, aspirational lifestyle is not great for your mental health in the long term. You just can’t help but compare your life to theirs and feel like you’re somehow coming up short, even if you *are* looking at them critically. (And even then: Who was I to judge someone I’d never even met? Was that really helping me?)

When the pandemic hit, it began to feel like so many of those lifestyle influencers were just wildly out of touch with the real world. How many photos of 20somethings lounging around their Hamptons vacation homes in g-string bikinis and $1000 cover-ups do I really need to see, when people are dying and unemployment is at 25%?

That said, I still follow all of my favorite Bookstagram accounts!

Do you think authenticity is even possible on platforms designed to showcase our highlight reels?

I think it’s really, really hard to be 100% authentic when you are curating your life for an audience, even if it’s just for a small number of your friends. Personally, even though I don’t have a massive Instagram account, I do have a lot of followers who are readers/fans, and so I’m very conscious about how I present myself. While I try to only post “real” photos of my world, of the 1440 minutes in the day, I select, what, a handful of moments to show the world? I can’t help but pick out the ones that present me in the best light, the most flattering angles, the positive moments. No one’s seeing photos of me in my bathrobe, hair wild; or doing the laundry; or yelling at my kids to clean up their toys. So… sure, I’m trying to be authentic, but it’s the tiniest slice of my life.

That’s not to say that you can’t find moments of authenticity on Instagram, but it’s hard to take them out of context. Even the confessional “getting real” posts we see a lot these days are often a deliberate kind of curation, a way to say “hey, look how authentic and relatable I am!” And that’s not really 100% authentic either. It’s truly an impossible conundrum.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Two pieces of advice I always give: First, find a community of like-minded writers. Take a writing class, or a writing workshop, and find other writers who are in the same position you are, starting out. Share your work with them, get feedback, and give each other motivation to keep working.

Secondly, write without worrying whether or not it’s good. It doesn’t have to be, not at first: Your job is to get words on the page, and then you can go back and change it later. Momentum really is key, so give yourself a word count goal and stick with it — without second-guessing yourself!

What three books would you recommend to get people through quarantine?

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim is both a page-turner and a tear-jerker, a humanity-filled courtroom thriller that is satisfying on every level.

I just finished the The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe, a coming-of-age story about a gay teenager and his misfit best friend. It’s funny and tender and heartbreaking, with characters you’ll fall in love with.

The new suspense novel Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar is so smart and beautiful written, about a young curator who starts to suspect that a dead artist might have been murdered.

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